Friday, April 18, 2014

We are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust

We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust was written by Jacob Boas (foreword by Patricia C. McKissack).  It was published by Henry Holt and Company in 1995.

 For my second biography, I chose to read We are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust because I had never realized there had been diaries other than Anne Frank’s.  These diaries are written by kids between the age of 13 – 17, and although their lives were shortened, their words deserve to continue on.  The book is separated into seven sections: Foreword, Introduction, David Rubinowicz – “The End of the World Will Soon Be Here”, Yitzhak Rudashevsky – “Long Live Youth!”, Moshe Flinker – “My Name is Harry”, Eva Heyman – I Want To Live!”, and Anne Frank – “I Must Uphold My Ideals.”  With each teenager, there is a different perspective on the war, but each writes about what is most important to them.

David Rubinowicz was thirteen year old boy from Krajno, a small village south of Warsaw, when he started his journal.  He was able to write in it for two years before he was sent to his death.  David’s diary focused on the militiamen and what they did the Jewish people.  He was constantly concerned with the fate of his father because he felt as though every time his father walked outside the militiamen would get him and he would never see him again. There are several pages in a row with excerpts of what he sees the militiamen do to the Jews in his town.  In his January 15, 1942 entry of his diary, he writes, “I learned that they’d manacled a Jew and taken him to the local police…They’d tied him to their sleigh and he’d been forced to run after it.  Perhaps they’ll shoot him – who knows? We sat there the whole evening, very sad and thoughtful.  How many enemies are on the prowl after such a poor defenseless creature! While he was tied to the sleigh, he couldn’t run anymore, and they’d dragged him along behind the sleigh and then shot him – such an unhappy fate he’d had to suffer!” David and his family were forced on a train to Treblinka in July of 1942.  Within a little over a year, David died with 850,000 other people in Treblinka.

Victor Rudashevski was a fifteen year old boy living in Vilnius, which was the capital of Lithuania.  Victor’s diary revolved around the rules set up against the Jews and the mass number of people that were murdered in the ghettos.  It started with the notice that all Jewish people would need to stay in their homes from 3 pm to 10 am every day.  While everyone was home, the police would come through and force whole neighborhoods out of their homes, take them to Ponar and shoot them.  Once they were sent to the ghettos, rules for work would change every few months.  It was said that anyone with a certain color certificate was eligible to work.  At first, they were white certificates, and David’s father had one.  The family was safe.  A few months later, the police decided that only people with yellow certificates could work.  They passed out 12,000 yellow certificates and said anyone who didn’t have one would be moved out of the ghetto (which they all knew meant murdered).  David’s grandmother went crazy in the months after the certificate was changed.  Finally, David’s mother was able to get a yellow certificate, but at the sake of another family.  The police took over 15,000 people without certificates and they were never heard from again.

Moshe Flinker was the third teenager in We are Witnesses.   Moshe was thirteen when he began his diary.  He was incredibly smart and good with words, and had planned on following his father’s footsteps into the world of business.  Moshe’s diary revolved around religion.  He was, by far, the most religious of the group and he often wondered in his writing how God would allow this, and then answered his own questions with things such as, “Maybe God was waiting to save the Jews because countries like the United States and England had ‘not committed enough sins to blacken their names completely.’” Until the end of his life, he truly believed that God would save them and never lost his faith.  On May 25, 1943, he wrote, “faith is indestructible, an inexhaustible source of strength, an inner sacred belief in comparison to which all external reality is negligible, the holiest thing in the world; faith explains and defines all we ought to be, how we ought to conduct ourselves, and that we ought to believe.” Unfortunately, he was not saved in time.  Moshe and his family were arrested on April 7, 1944 and sent to Auschwitz.  Moshe and his parents were murdered, although his brother and five sisters were spared.

Eva Heyman was a thirteen year old girl when she started her dairy.  She had it for least amount of time – only four months – before she was sent away and murdered.  Eva’s diary revolved around the relationships in her family.  Eva wrote a lot about her mother, Agi, and her step father, Bela.  Agi seemed to care more about Bela than her own daughter, going after him over and over when he was in danger.  Agi and Bela moved away from Eva when she was thirteen.  They lived about 150 miles from her until she was forced home by the Germans.  When Bela was forced to a working camp, Agi protested for his release daily.  It took her over a month, but she was able to get him back to their city, only to be locked up in jail. It took another couple of weeks before she was able to get him out of jail.  In Eva’s chapter, Boas included letters from Eva’s housekeeper to Agi after the war.  In the letters, her housekeeper blames Agi for Eva’s death. She wrote, “If there is one thing for which I must blame you, it isn’t for having stayed alive while the girl is dead…but for not having fought to have Eva with you, even in more modest circumstances.  You, who fought so hard for your man when everybody said it was hopeless; you, who in the end succeeded in rescuing him from that horror in which you found yourselves in Varad; and in the end you, who understand people so well, you have an instinct about this sort of thing, you, my Agike, in this matter, you failed!”  You see, Agi faked an illness in Bela and the two of them were able to stay in the ghetto when everyone else was forced on the train.  She lived when her daughter, Eva, died.

The last diary was that of Anne Frank.  Anne’s diary is the most famous diary from the war.  It is translated into over 30 languages and studied around the world. She is known as “the most famous child.”  Anne’s story is much different than the other four teenagers.  She didn’t suffer through the ghettos, watch people she loved die, or suffer through years of hunger.  Although she was in hiding, she was well taken care of, in respect to the others.  She had family and friends around, and even though they were in a small space, she knew she was lucky to have them.  In the excerpt of the diary included in We Are Witnesses, Anne’s focus was on her relationship with her family and herself.  She was very close to her father, but felt as though he was treating her as a child.  She was very self-reflective, and knew how much she had grown in the years she was in hiding. She wanted him to treat her as an adult, as she had to endure this just as they did.  Anne held out hope throughout the war.  On July 15, 1944 she wrote, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out.  Yet, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Unfortunately, everyone was not good, and her murders came for her in August, 1944.  Since she was strong and healthy, she lived over a year at Auschwitz, but died in the winter of 1945 from Typhus and starvation.

I have always been interested in WWII and the horrors the people went through, and what interested me so much about this book was how many different perspectives and unique situations the teenagers were in.  Each of them lived in different areas and had different experiences within this war.  Some of them had more lenient police and could wander through the streets longer, while some of them were in fear of being shot if they stepped out of their house.  They continued going to school, playing with friends and enjoying each other’s company at clubs and meetings within the ghettos. They all had dreams – to be a lawyer, a business man, to marry and become an artist – yet all of their dreams were shattered because of the hatred of so many.  It also astounded me that Moshe’s family was the only ones who had been truly religious.  The rest of them, which I suspect were like many others, weren’t all that strict with their religion, if they followed it at all.  I am saddened to know so many died for something that wasn’t even an integral part of their lives. 
Boas took extensive notes on the families and listed where he got her information at the end of the book, which makes me believe her facts are correct and this is a true depiction of what these teenagers, families, and people around them went through.   

If you would like to read We Are Witnesses, you can find the book at Worldcat.

To learn more about the Holocaust and find read about others' experiences, you can go to The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum.

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